Baseball: America’s Greatest Social Experiment,Part 1
There’s no wonder why baseball is called the national pastime. It is undisputedly the greatest game ever invented. And if that isn’t enough, baseball also offers some great lessons about the workings of American society.
When you think about it, baseball is rooted in conservatism. Look at the rules. They have changed little since organized baseball began in 1879. Three strikes make an out, six outs make an inning and nine innings make a ball game. The object is simple: score more runs than the other team. One of the most radical changes ever made in the game came in 1973 when the American League adopted the designated hitter rule which spared fans from seeing pitchers go to bat. But baseball has a populist side as well. Winning teams are often multicultural, have chemistry and make sacrifices for the good of the team.
Unlike basketball and football, which demand qualities such as abnormal size and strength, these attributes are not required in baseball. The baseball Hall of Fame is a testament to the underachiever underdogs, and misfits by including players such as Babe Ruth, Mordecai Three Fingers Brown and Kirby Puckett. And don’t forget: baseball was the first sport to promote the “American Dream” of climbing from poverty to success. Baseball’s lore includes stories like the one about the potbellied kid from the mean streets of Baltimore. His parents sent him to a Catholic school where a baseball loving clergyman taught “The Great Bambino” George Herman Ruth the game.
Don’t forget the tale of two immigrants from sunny California, one Italian and one Mexican, whose drive and determination got America through the Great Depression and inspired us through World War II. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio gave many poor kids hope in the age of Hitler and Stalin. And, although Major League Baseball was once an exclusive club of white males, the sport has mirrored America’s evolving attitude about race. Black ballplayers were unofficially banned from organized baseball in the early years. It wasn’t until the late 1940s after the death of the first major league baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis that Jackie Robinson got a tryout.
Without boycotts, sit-ins or marches. for social change, baseball became a laboratory for integration. Since Robinson was the first, he had to endure Jim Crow racism, eating and sleeping in separate facilities while his teammates slept in more comfortable accommodations But his performance was something Americans could not ignore. Before winning the rookie of the year and a MVP the Brooklyn Dodgers were perennial bottom dwellers. After Jackie Robinson arrived they appeared in six World Series in his 10 year career. Meanwhile,teams that were the last to integrate such as the Red Sox and Phillies faltered.
But there is more to the story. In my next column I’ll explore labor history and baseball.